brandless retail commerce

Brandless cofounder and chief executive officer Tina Sharkey is well aware that her company’s name is a bit of a misnomer.

“It’s not that we don’t have a brand,” she told WWD. “Brandless is our brand.”

The concept seems to work. Selling everything from organic cheese puffs and kitchen knives to nail clippers and hand lotion — all packaged in clear or plain material with simple fonts — the business has been going at it for just a little over a year. And yet, it just scored a $240 million Series C funding round this summer led by SoftBank‘s Vision Fund. Previously, the company raised $49 million total.

When asked what, in particular, attracted Softbank, a Japanese multinational conglomerate known for making major tech investments, Sharkey took a beat to reflect. From her perspective as a former venture partner at Sherpa Capital, backers tend to invest in founders — in this case her and Australian entrepreneur and investor Ido Leffler. “We’re experienced global operators and we’ve been down these roads before, and we have a lot of experience in managing small things, building things and scaling things globally,” she said. “We have a seasoned track record of operating and scaling big businesses.” 

Her background includes roles as chairman and global president of Johnson and Johnson’s BabyCenter and as networks and community lead at AOL. As the cofounder of iVillage, she was one of the first people to use the term “social media.” In other words, she knows what it takes to build community.

“If you saw our investor deck, one of the first slides says we’re on a mission to democratize access to goodness,” she added. “We believe that modern consumption is broken and we want to fix it. Should you think about Brandless as any one product, then you’re not actually seeing the collapsing of the supply chain, the building for ship-not-shelf and how we build a direct relationship with the consumers that we serve.”

As she tells it, that’s the heart and soul of the company, and it positions Brandless as more of a movement than merely a profit-making machine. In a time when the public’s faith in institutions is rapidly dwindling, Sharkey said, she wanted to create a different kind of company that’s transparent, quality-minded and passionate about its community. The sensibility even shows up in Brandless packaging, she said, pointing to an array of goods housed in things like clear bottles and single-color pouches with an image portraying the product inside.

That’s also a major reason why the company sources all of its products, so it can cut costs and still deliver organic and other quality products at an accessible price point — which is, for the most part, $3.

For a new business, especially one with such thin margins, Brandless’ ramp-up looks impressive. The start-up doesn’t publicly share revenue or sales figures, but uses stockkeeping units to express growth. The business launched in July 2017, and since then, it’s more than tripled its product assortment, going from 110 products to more than 333 products across beauty, snacks, personal care, home goods and others. The company aims to reach 400 by the end of the year. Its manufacturing operation allows it to control the pipeline and own distribution, as well as all of its customer data.

In today’s Amazon-fueled world, that independent approach matters.

The question that keeps plenty of brand and retail executives up at night is whether to join a major marketplace like Amazon’s. Retailers of all stripes face a tough choice: The e-commerce giant can drive sales and visibility, but joining its platform is tantamount to essentially handing over precious data on customer interests and buying habits.

Instead, a rising tide of direct-to-consumer operations are going a different route. Companies like Warby Parker, Everlane and Dollar Shave Club act like a north star for others itching to go it alone, as the industry looks to start-ups like Brandless as new contenders.

Not that it’s alone in the journey. Brandless sees customers as a community of people furthering its cause. Its focus on community is evident in the editorial content — recipes using Brandless products and customer “hacks” using Brandless ingredients. The company has even created a print catalogue to go in the boxes, to help shoppers discover its growing breadth of product categories.

“[We’re] building a community that scales organically and virally,” Sharkey explained. “There’s a viral coefficient in both creating our owned and operated channels…it’s about what a friend tells a friend.

“Brandless is building that larger amplified story,” she said.